Kona Soars To
Can the Industry Sustain
by Les Drent
Luis Cisneros - milling
coffee at Bay View Farm in Honaunau.
The new numbers now surrounding the Kona coffee industry
are staggering. It was only 10 years ago that Kona coffee
acreage dropped to a mere 1,200 acres as the name Kona
Coffee was becoming more of an icon throughout
the coffee crazed world than the actual prized coffee
bean from Kona.
While the last decade of the twentieth century for
Kona coffee was marred by counterfeiting, scandals,
federal indictments, and million dollar class action
law suits, it is becoming more and more evident that
this age old industry is turning over a new leaf and
propelling itself to new heights. Coffee acreage in
Kona is now estimated at nearly 3,000 acres and is expected
to continue growing as the reputation of 100% Kona coffee
and its appeal spreads.
Within the next two years coffee production in Kona
will likely reach 18 million pounds of raw coffee cherry
placing a 13.5 million dollar price tag on the annual
Kona coffee crop if current cherry prices can maintain
themselves. When milled and graded an estimated 26 million
dollars will circulate throughout the green coffee industry
and an estimated 60 million dollars will be spent by
customers buying roasted Kona coffee.
While numbers like these pale in the face of serious
coffee producing countries like Brazil and Colombia,
their meaning is much greater when considering the small
farmer in Kona and the huge effect this is having on
the small 20 mile stretch of land on the Big Island
known as the Kona Coffee Belt.
If anything has been learned by history these numbers
should really surprise no one. At the turn of the twentieth
century Kona coffee boomed to only see itself collapse
before soaring again to 6,000 planted acres during the
These busts and booms throughout Konas long coffee
history have many old time farmers holding fast to their
belief that little future security can be found in growing
Kona coffee. The big question still remains. Can a sustainable
future finally be found in the midst of this new boom?
Many in Kona believe that it can but it will take much
more than just growing great coffee. The road to sustaining
the coffee economy relies heavily on the marketing of
100% Kona coffee.
Today farmers and millers have an advantage that their
counterparts didnt have in the past. Technology
and enhanced communication systems have linked many
customers to the direct source of their coffee and eliminated
the need for the middle man. In the past this middle
man or coffee broker served to only muddy the waters
between customer and supplier and all too often jeopardized
the purity of Kona coffee being delivered to the public.
Ultimately it was the reputation of Kona coffee that
was bastardized and the customer who was cheated out
of the pure thing. While there are many reputable coffee
brokers who deal in Kona coffee recent quality assurance
programs have helped to eliminate those who are not
playing by the rules. Its still best for customers
to know personally who they are buying 100% Kona coffee
from. A personal relationship and running dialogue with
your source is worth its weight in gold.
Realizing that the amount of money being controlled
at the roasted and green end of Kona coffee is greatly
disproportionate to the amount being generated at the
raw coffee cherry end it is imperative that the growth
of Kona coffee production is paralleled by the direct
sale of roasted coffee. More dollars coming directly
to Kona will enhance the economic and social welfare
in the region and also allow farmers and millers to
make decisions about where and how this coffee is sold.
For most these are very important factors in upholding
the gourmet reputation and purity of Kona coffee. And
believe it or not they are also issues widely discussed
among industry leaders.
Farmers planting new coffee should be aware of the
volatile and diverse market surrounding Kona coffee
and realize that their success should not rely solely
on selling their coffee cherry to the processors. While
coffee cherry prices rose to one dollar and seventy
five cents per pound in 1998, this past season the price
dropped to seventy five cents per pound. That should
be evidence enough to understand that the cherry market
is subject to huge sways. The price escalation of 1998
was the result of processor competition not mother nature
or the world coffee market.
Kona Coffee Cherry.
Despite the erratic ups and downs of the cherry market
it is the opinion of many in Kona that acreage should
continue to be expanded but only at the rate of reasonable
demand for roasted coffee not cherry. Similar to investment
planning it is wise to keep diverse when investing your
money. Such is the case with Kona coffee and a sustainable
future in farming. Achieving a customer base on the
mainland for green and roasted coffee and not relying
solely on what the mills are offering for raw coffee
cherry will only help to protect the farmer in the event
of a local market collapse in cherry prices.
At a cost of thirty five cents per pound to have coffee
picked and an average of ten cents per pound for orchard
maintenance that includes pricey fertilizers there is
only a current margin of thirty cents per pound to capitalize
on before taxes. All the more reason growers must find
a way to capitalize on green and roasted sales where
profits can soar to as much as three hundred percent.
Capturing that roasted market and keeping more dollars
in Kona will be the key to success for this industry.
Then and only then will a sustainable and more secure
future be in hand for those growing Kona coffee.
In the spirit of growing Kona coffee Coffee Times is
lucky to have as a new advertiser Tiare Lani Coffee,
owned and operated by George and Linda Yasuda of Holualoa.
Outside of raising world class Kona coffee their services
include expert consultation on growing Kona coffee.
This is the first article relating to growing Kona
coffee that we have published in Coffee Times and Im
hoping we can get George to contribute more articles
relating to the subject in future issues. Im sure
both locals and visitors alike will enjoy reading and
learning about what goes into growing Kona coffee.
The old style coffee
mill at D. Uchida Farm.
The undernourished Kona Coffee tree has no place in
George Yasudas orchard.
Often, this tree, famous for its gourmet bean, looks
a little scrawny with branches bearing widely spaced
Its mostly painted or photographed that way, too.
Yasuda, agricultural consultant for Tiare Lani Coffee
and coffee researcher, believes the Kona Coffee tree
has yet to be fully recognized in its truest, healthiest
The tree giants at Yasudas new orchard in Kainaliu
stood as much as 14-feet tall after 2 1/2 years of growth.
Today, their thick trunks send out strong branches with
dark-green leaves and closely clustered cherries. The
result - higher yields, quality and bigger beans.
Its this kind of coffee tree that Yasuda, 43,
of Holualoa, strives to see growing everywhere in Kona.
Its just a matter of understanding plants
and their needs, Yasuda said in an interview.
With proper care, anyone can have trees living
up to their full potential.
The Kona native has put his theories and education
to work in coffee orchards throughout Kona. Yasuda has
consulted with upwards of 120 farmers in the past twenty-one
years, helping them start as many as 1,500 new acres
of coffee and several nurseries producing thousands
George Yasuda (left)
with Burt Rames harvesting his giant Kona coffee
trees planted only three years ago.
Yasuda said his orchards are producing well above the
industry average of 6,000 pounds of cherry per acre,
a figure from a Hawaii Department of Agriculture publication.
This current harvest season, Yasuda said his mature
orchard in Holualoa, which is planted old-style,
or not in rows, will bear 13,000 pounds per acre.
His new orchard in Kainaliu bore 9,000 pounds per acre
in 1998-99, when the trees were 2 years and three months
old. The same trees a year later will bear approximately
11,000 pounds per acre, he said. Yasuda estimates that
healthy mature Kona Coffee trees should bear anywhere
from 12,500 pounds per acre to 14,500 pounds per acre,
depending on elevation and weather.
Nurseries Vs. Pulla Pulla
Yasuda encourages new farmers to grow coffee from seed
in nurseries, versus the old-style, pulla-pulla
method, in which young coffee plants, sprouting where
they fall, are pulled out of the ground and replanted.
When you start your trees in the nursery, you
have more control over the quality of the trees that
will become your orchard for the next 100 years plus,
Yasuda said. From the nursery stage, trees do
better overall. Pulla-pulla tends to produce
after 3 or 4 years, and not very consistently.
Using the horticultural techniques hes perfected
since working in his familys coffee land as a
young boy and later as an agricultural college student
and researcher at the University of Hawaiis experiment
station, Yasudas orchard surpassed his own expectations.
We had to replace maybe 2% of the trees in the
first year, he said. Thats pretty
low compared to other farming styles.
Yasudas consulting has helped many farmers, including
Jim and Vicky Wickersham of VikiWiki Coffee Co. in Kainaliu.
They said George recommended they buy their farm when
no one else would.
This 9-acre farm was pretty far gone at the time
- even with its existing coffee trees, said Vicki.
They told us to forget it.
George took one look and told us it was an excellent
opportunity, added Jim. Weve followed
his advice, and only his advice, ever since. Next year,
we will double our cherry production in weight.
Joe Santimer, owner of Hookena Nursery, which sells
more than 40,000 coffee trees a year, said it was Yasudas
consulting advice that helped his nursery become one
of Konas biggest and better coffee tree nurseries.
He knows the answers, Santimer said in
a recent interview. Without George we would not
be where we are today. If I ask him a question, he doesnt
have to go look it up. Its right there on the
tip of his tongue.
Following are brief explanations of Yasudas techniques
which include: proper land preparation, spacing of trees,
stock selection, fertilization, pruning and a theory
that could decrease widespread concern about nematodes,
the wormlike insect known to nibble at the coffee trees
roots and, eventually, kill it.
Yasuda said a critical first step in planting a new
coffee orchard is land preparation. Choosing a reputable
large equipment operator with experience in agriculture
is important, he said.
If you cut corners at this juncture, you could
end up running in circles later on, Yasuda said.
A good bulldozer operator knows that you cant
mix topsoil with subsoil, and in Kona, especially, you
have to rip the rock so the root systems have room to
Yasuda always encourages developers to bulldoze around
native Hawaiian trees. The ohia trees in
Yasudas orchard continue to support native Hawaiian
birds and act as a beautiful shade canopy for the coffee
Yasuda recommends spacing new orchards in the following
way - generally, depending on elevation, he said it
is best to put 6 feet between the trees and 12 feet
between the rows, all planted north to south. He said
this step nearly always assures a farmer he will get
trees with closely clustered cherries.
This spacing brings optimum yields and quality
coffee, Yasuda said. Putting coffee trees
closer together makes them lanky and vegetative. Plus,
its more expensive to take care of with no increase
in yields in the long run.
While most Kona Coffee trees are of the Guatemalan variety,
Yasuda said it is important to choose seed stock carefully.
He said one must either get seed stock from proven tree
parents or from nurseries using quality stock.
You wouldnt grow an orange tree from an
orange that didnt taste good, Yasuda said.
Knowing what strain the coffee comes from will
make all the difference in the taste.
Bottom line fertilizing is an extra cost, but
Yasuda said the benefits far outweigh the added expense.
Yasudas optimum fertilization program costs approximately
$800 per acre, per year. However, he said he would recommend
less if a farmer couldnt handle the cost. He said
even $400 per acre, per year is helpful to an orchard.
Industry-wide, farmers are getting about an average
60 bags of cherry per acre, Yasuda said. If
you can get 110 to 140 bags, the coffee will easily
pay for the materials.
Your fixed costs will always be there - land
taxes, herbiciding, mowing, etc. - but if you can increase
the yield, your net profit will be higher.
One self-taught technique that Yasuda uses with great
results is the pruning of coffee trees in their 1st
and 2nd years. After about a year of growth, when most
consider the trees young and in need of their branches,
Yasuda prunes heavily.
By the second year, the trees have as many as
5 verticals, Yasuda said, referring to the shoots
that grow straight up and become the major coffee-bearing
branches. Obviously, a tree with 3 to 5 verticals
will produce more coffee than a tree with one.
Yasuda has planted new orchards in locations known to
have nematodes, although many advised him not to do
it. Yet, the trees have flourished and show no sign
of nematode destruction. Based on what hes experienced,
Yasuda believes a healthy coffee tree will successfully
Its just like the human body and a virus,
Yasuda said. When the body is weak, the virus
attacks, and the body is nearly defenseless. My experience
is that healthy coffee trees continue to grow, repair
the damage, and the tree life expectancy is normal.
(How to battle nematodes successfuly is an ongoing campaign
and the theories surrounding the subject are not proven
practices as of yet.)
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